|Texts and Contexts|
We have a chance to make some things happen in the next two days. First, we can think hard, we can think passionately, within the terms of our title: Texts and Contexts. It's clear, isn't it?, that one way of understanding the history of our field—and its legacy to us—is to see it as a continual deep pondering, and a sometimes bitter conflict, over the competing claims of text and context. What is our subject? What is our aim? Is it to probe the mysteries of highly wrought individual artifacts—to disclose the concealed secret, the buried treasure, the veiled desire? Is it our task to approach a collection of sacred objects, one at a time, pondering and prodding them, and then putting them on display as clarified mysteries, light where they once were shadowy?
Or is our subject the broad expanse of culture in which alone individual objects can receive their meaning? Should our method be to look for the cultural width surrounding every literary depth and recognize that wherever you find the sacred, there too, you find the profane? Must we refuse the sacred aura of the one glistening artifact, the bristling particular, lone and remarkable and insist on placing our texts within the widening web of shared social life?
It's evident, at least I call it evident, that both positions—in the ferocity of their purity—are open to critique. And I like to believe, that the opportunity of our historical moment—and also our weekend— is to give up the will to power on both sides and to think about new and subtle relations between text and context, artifact and social field. This conference will test that belief; it will test it through a long course of literary and cultural history—from medieval to contemporary studies and back again— and through the greatest variety of methods, languages, convictions. This is a big department and a diverse conference—because our culture is a massive inheritance.
There's something else that we can make happen here. Any self is like a text: a complicated structure of meanings, a pattern of marks and traces. We all occupy the text of the self—we revise and edit the manuscript of our subjectivity. The individual talent in this department is fairly dazzling, but no one can command the field of literary study alone—and this gives a context for texts-and-contexts: the context of our talking and thinking together.
It can be embarrassing to talk about intellectual collaboration, academic solidarity. But I think we need to risk embarrassment, because, look, we're trying to do something around here. We are trying to think about how individual ardor can become part of a collective life—how we can escape the prison-house of professional subjectivity. And so I thank you for coming because whether you meant to or not, and whether you knew it or not, you are texts, all of you sitting there, and you are living now within the context of a possibility.
All of us know that the difficulties of academic life come not only from the outside where cold winds howl and horns bleat, but also here on the inside where we howl and bleat too. Partly we inherit, but partly we build and maintain, a system of credentials, a machinery of admission and hiring and promotion, that enshrines individual performance and disrupts intellectual solidarity. Our very success in opening new fields during the last several decades—and nothing has been more important than that—this very successful opening has turned departments into collections of sub-disciplines, to the point where it can seem sheer paradise to find one colleague who ever reads what you read, who shares your vocabulary—your sense of humour, who is willing to be your partner on the ark. We didn't mean it to be this way. Everyone I know has memories of an anticipation: we weren't going to burnish the glow of the self; that wasn't the point; we were going to join the eternal seminar, sitting on the edge of our seats, talking into the night, indifferent to the ownership of ideas.
It would be too much to ask any of us to give up the pride of individual accomplishment,— but who can deny that, whatever happens outside on the street, or in the statehouses, we ourselves need to invent antidotes to careerism, competition, isolation? —and to recall, as if awakening from a nightmare, that right here among us we need to strive to make a good society, a flourishing community?
|TEI Markup by Rachel Sampson|